John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Nikki Blonsky, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Zac Efron, Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelly, Michelle Pfeiffer, Allison Janney & Brittany Snow
While "Hairspray," the vibrant stage-to-screen adaptation directed by Adam Shankman ("Bringing Down the House" and "The Wedding Planner"), doesn't quite measure up to the 1988 source material from which it and its Broadway musical foundation are based, nonetheless, it is easily Summer 2007's most unpretentiously entertaining and purely comical film to hit the moviehouses.
Within moments of being introduced to a teenage Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), we completely fall in love with her irrepressible spirit and sense of justice. Blonsky, in the role that Ricki Lake made famous, owns the screen virtually every second with a smile wide enough to brighten up the Baltimore sky where it resides and that John Waters trademark of being comfortable in her own skin to make the attractively overweight Tracy appropriately campy and sympathetic.
Tracy lives in a world only John Waters could ultimately create, a world where optimism rules even when surrounded by hate and injustice. While this movie musical is, almost inevitably, a slightly more sugar-coated version of the John Waters vision, Shankman's "Hairspray" is a surprisingly faithful homage to the Waters vision without forsaking the more stylized and energized tone offered by the Broadway musical.
Each day, Tracy and her best friend, Penny Pingleton (a delightful Amanda Bynes), suffer through the school hours daily so that they can rush home and watch "The Corny Collins Show," a TV Dance Party much like countless nationwide predecessors to Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," in which stylish and cool teens would dance away to this new-fangled rock n' roll music while their parents horrifyingly protested in the background.
For Baltimore teens, Corny (an increasingly impressive James Marsden) is the ultimate in cool and his "Council" of teen dancers, led by Tracy's fellow classmate Link (Zac Efron of "High School Musical") and Amber (Brittany Snow), personify the hopes and dreams of Tracy and countless other teens.
When Tracy auditions for a "Council" opening, she begins to face the realities of life for an overweight girl in a paper-thin world as her dream of dancing on the show are squelched by the station's manager, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who works hard to keep the station White and stylish with the exception of the show's monthly "Negro Day," hosted by the larger-than-life Maybelle (Queen Latifah) and led by its own Seaweed (Elijah Kelly).
With the support of her ever-loving and loyal parents, Edna (John Travolta reprises the traditional "in drag" maternal role played by Divine in the 1988 film and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway) and Wilbur (Christopher Walken), Tracy bounces back and into the hearts of a ready-for-change Baltimore as only John Waters could envision it.
In the wrong director's hands, "Hairspray" could have been a complete and utter disaster. Let's be honest...in Shankman's hands, we expected it to be. While his commercial viability is undeniable, Shankman's largely milque toast previous films hardly planted faith that he could do justice to both the sacred irreverence and authentic humanity of John Waters' world.
Shankman more than rises to the occasion and the result is 2007's most surprisingly entertaining film.
Shankman, before he became the director of such bland fare as "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" and "The Pacifier," handled choreographer duties for such films as "Boogie Nights" and "Stuck On You," and his ability to frame a scene to capture both its emotional and stylish impact allows "Hairspray" to feel constantly natural even in the midst of highly orchestrated song and dance numbers.
Leslie Dixon's script remains faithful, as well, to this unique blend of style and substance, a perfect blend that makes "Hairspray" a more effective and entertaining musical than Hollywood's other recent movie musicals, including the Oscar-winning "Chicago."
Virtually every member of the cast clearly buys into Shankman's vision, balancing both the campy potential and the humanity necessary to really bring this world to life.
While the novelty casting of Travolta as Edna feels almost eerily uncomfortable, damn if Travolta doesn't nail the role with a less campy, more authentic take of Edna that makes her a tad more sympathetic than Divine's Edna without losing sight of the fact that Edna is different from other women. The fat suit is obvious, but that's part of the point in a Waters film...our differences are obvious, but who really cares? Travolta's Edna is utterly endearing even when you do, on occasion, look at the screen and remember "That's Travolta in drag." Walken, who can practically convince anyone of anything, is completely believable as the constantly loyal Wilbur, whose quirks can't hide the fact that he is the perfect father and husband.
While some of the supporting roles are arguably a tad underwritten, the film's overall gentle spirit and electric energy largely compensates for these modest flaws and, more importantly, the actor's bring to life even the most thinly drawn characters.
Despite having the least memorable tunes to work with, Michelle Pfeiffer's take on the former Miss Baltimore struggling to adjust to a changing world is bitchy without being downright vicious. Likewise, Brittany Snow's Amber is more spoiled brat than evil young woman, a tone fitting of life in a John Waters world where even the most evil person is really just a misguided soul.
Amanda Bynes is a joy as the always loyal best friend. Bynes gets some of the film's best laughs as she struggles to survive under the microscopic guidance of her Catholic mother (a hilariously familiar Allison Janney) and in her playful flirtations with Seaweed.
As the popular Link, Zac Efron brings such a depth to the role that his sudden fondness for Tracy even in the face of his blonde beauty is completely convincing. Likewise, as the show host who isn't opposed to a whole lotta shaking up of the establishment, James Marsden serves notice to Hollywood that his recent stellar work in smaller, indie fare wasn't a fluke and he's rapidly becoming one of Hollywood's more dependable supporting actors.
Speaking of Seaweed, Elijah Kelly is the other absolute discovery of "Hairspray," with a performance that is a brilliantly realized mix of confidence and sincerity.
Queen Latifah shines as Maybelle, evoking both her spirited bombasticity and her sweetness. Moreso than in her turn in "Chicago," Latifah really puts on prime display the wondrous diversity of her voice with tunes that are both electrifying and soulful. Even when handling the film's only "preachy" moment, a musical march on Baltimore, Latifah brings a humanity to the occasion that wrings out the moment's preachiness just enough to make it palatable. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Latifah's tune, "I Know Where I've Been," is one of the film's true highlights.
Marc Shaiman and Chris Wittman's score sparkles and the film's production design and appearance remain faithful to Waters' vision of 1960's Baltimore. One could argue that Shankman's choreography doesn't quite spotlight 60's dance styles enough, though it's hardly noticeable in this vibrantly alive world he's created.
If one wonders how Waters feels about the whole affair, one need only watch carefully for the all important Waters cameo, along with that of original Tracy Ricki Lake and another cameo by Pia Zadora and, yes, you can even catch director Adam Shankman if you look quickly.
In 2007's sea of cookie-cutter comedies and paint-by-number sequels, "Hairspray" is a breath of fresh air for Hollywood and moviegoers alike.
There's no other way to put it..."Hairspray" creates a world in which John Waters could be proud, a world both grounded in reality and yet brimming in possibility. John Waters has to be overjoyed..."Hairspray" is simply divine.
- Richard Propes
The Independent Critic